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Vaughn Palmer: Few details, little rationale provided in B.C. museum business plan

The unrealistic plan for a new Royal B.C. Museum never should have gotten this far

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VICTORIA — The B.C. New Democrats on Wednesday finally got around to releasing the business case for their decision to permanently close the provincial museum by Sept. 6 and spend $1 billion on two replacement buildings.

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But by the time the government’s in-house censors had finished redacting, there was not enough content left to explain why the NDP cabinet concluded than an eight-year closure and a whopping pricetag were the best options.

The main business plan runs about 100 pages. About of third of those pages included passages that were blacked out in whole or in part.

The plan came with some 34 appendices. Fully one dozen of those were withheld in their entirety. Others were subjected to editing by blackout, the textual equivalent of the cone of silence.

Still, Tourism Minister Melanie Mark proclaimed the release as evidence of the NDP government’s commitment to “transparency.”

In practice, that proved to be on par with the party’s commitment to freedom of information.

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Each of the edits suggested its own story about government motivations — some telling, others merely amusing.

They withheld the strategic communications plans for the Royal B.C. Museum itself and for Mark’s ministry of tourism, arts and culture.

Right. Given the catastrophic ineffectiveness of the NDP communications strategy to date, you sure wouldn’t want those plans to fall into the wrong hands.

They also blotted out the visual representation for what Mark called “the indicative design” for the replacement museum.

Screen shot from the business case to replace the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, as presented to the media on May 25, 2022.
Screen shot from the business case to replace the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, as presented to the media on May 25, 2022.

Apparently, they didn’t want to give people the wrong impression about the project. And yet they’ve already given people a bad impression of the project without the help of any visual aids.

Other withholdings were more in the nature of a coverup.

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From the risk assessment report: “The project team quantified a total of 21 capital risks.” There followed a lengthy table, quantifying each of the 21 risks.

But the entire table was obliterated. Not even the numbering of each risk, 1 to 21, survived the censors.

The planners also identified unquantified risks. For instance: “One of the highest unquantified risks is the Royal B.C. Museum’s (blank).

What precisely is the highest unquantified risk at the museum? Your guess is as good as mine.

Gone, too, was an entire appendix setting out the proposed labour agreement for the project.

Labour agreements with targets for local hiring and community benefits are commonplace with NDP-backed projects. But the details of the labour agreement for the Royal B.C. Museum are not being disclosed.

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The New Democrats are providing the winning bidder on the project with financial incentives to meet government hiring targets.

The incentives were withheld as well.

Some of the items that did survive the redacting process bordered on the delusional.

The business case claimed that “an extensive public engagement process has been developed and implemented for the (museum) modernization.”

The supposedly extensive process ran for three months in the spring of 2019. It drew 177 online comments, and another 131 people participated through seven community meetings.

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None were asked for an opinion on a plan to close the existing museum, tear it down, and replace it with a new building at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars eight years hence.

Wednesday’s presentation pegged the full cost of the replacement project at $789.5 million, including $550 million for designing and building the new museum and $239.5 million for all other costs, including contingencies, demolition, and fitting out the new galleries.

The numbers represent an upward revision from the business plan as approved by the cabinet this March. That plan put the capital cost at $774.2 million and the price ceiling on the main building at $530 million.

But it is not possible to be more specific about the rationale for either set of numbers because the New Democrats edited out most of the breakdowns, including numbers for contingencies, consulting fees, First Nations funding, leasing and storage, moving costs, insurance, and so on.

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The remainder of the $1 billion in the budget for the museum project is accounted for by the previously approved business plan for a new research and collections building.

When the project finally turned up in the February 2021 budget, it was costed at $177 million, with a completion date of 2024.

This year, the cost was revised upward by $47 million to $224 million, and the construction schedule was extended to 2025.

A 27-per-cent increase in the budget over one year is scarcely calculated to build confidence in the overall management of the project.

Even without the extensive redactions, I wouldn’t be taking any of the numbers in this week’s business plan to the bank.

One of the unredacted admissions in the plan indicates that the replacement project is already behind schedule.

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The new museum was supposed to be finished and fully open in September 2029. That has now been pushed off to an unspecified date in 2030.

Wednesday’s presentation included a for-background technical presentation by staff, followed by an on-the-record conference with the minister.

At the end, one was left with the impression of a bunch of bureaucrats let loose with no realistic budget or timeline, and a cabinet minister carried away with her own rhetoric.

Neither strikes me as able to sell this to the public.

The plan never should have gotten this far.

A tough-minded cabinet would have bounced it back to the museum, with instructions to “get real” on the pricetag and the length of the shutdown.

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